As part of our wellness collaboration with Girls Write Now, we asked 3 young writers from their mentorship program to share a piece of work they created about personal loss. Through poems and short stories, these mentees have recorded the bitter, confusing, resilient, and tender parts of their grief. In this mini series, Emma Kushnirsky, Ifeoma Okwuka, and Olivia Kim talk about how their cultural backgrounds have influenced their experiences of loss, and how they’ve used writing to reach new places of understanding.
Q: Do you think that your cultural background has influenced how you see grief? In what way?
A: My cultural background on my Dad’s side is Ukrainian/Soviet Jewish, and that’s the family culture that I think most influences my experience of grief. As my family grew up in Soviet-era Ukraine, they aren’t very religious, though they strongly identify with being Soviet-Jewish immigrants because Jewish people were often not considered really “Russian.” After leaving the Soviet Union, many Jewish immigrants reconnected with their Jewishness in holidays and daily life.
My family reconnected to an extent, but a second layer of cultural peeling-away made these efforts feel forced and foreign. This was clear to me when my бабушка (grandmother) died. I think many people find themselves reaching for ritual during trying times, but there was something pitiful about the way my family did, selecting the Jewish mourning traditions that we remembered and glossing over others. Of course, rituals based in tradition can be powerful for healing, and even simply for having something to do when someone we love passes. In my family, I felt more like we couldn’t find authentic expressions of our sadness — we reached for something prescribed in its relative familiarity without finding the meaning and depth in it. We didn’t reach for one another. The burial took place very shortly after her death. There were no funeral flowers. The casket was closed to remember her as in life, and my dad didn’t shave or cut his hair for a period of time afterwards. Still, my dad, aunt, and brother looked in on her body for the last time at the funeral home, as I timidly begged them not to and refused myself “because it’s against the tradition,” though that’s not me. I couldn’t admit that I just couldn’t go see her body.
-Emma Kushnirsky, 19, Bronx, NY
Read Emma’s story, Her House Becomes Relic.
A: My parents gave my late grandmother a befitting burial in Nigeria to mark her departure. Burials, although inherently heartbreaking, can take on a celebratory nature, especially within Nigerian tradition. From a cultural perspective, burials are a celebration of a well-lived life. They serve as an opportunity to commemorate the dead. So, my grandmother’s burial was rooted in a strange hybrid of melancholic and euphoric undertones. Then there’s the religious perspective. Being a Catholic, the belief in an afterlife very much factors into my processing of grief. I tell myself “My grandmother is not physically here, but remains spiritually present.” In that way, death becomes an altered state of being and not the end of everything. There’s something quite comforting about that.
-Ifeoma Okwuka, 18, Bronx, NY
Read Ifeoma’s story, I Like The Look of Freedom On You.
A: My cultural background has definitely influenced how I see grief. As a Korean-American female, I feel pressure to not dwell on grief or those types of feelings, and instead redirect my focus and attention to other aspects of my life. In that sense, grief is something that has never been open for me to explore, at least not with members of my family or with my friends. Grief has always been more of a personal journey, and one that I need to make time to fully comprehend and take my time with. I was never given the time to be taught about what grief is or what I’m supposed to do with those feelings. My cultural background has forced me to become more aware of these ever-present feelings, and realize what I think is valid and important.
-Olivia Kim, 15, Queens, NY
Read Olivia’s poem, My Grandmother.